The Earls of Leicester at the 2022 Earl Scruggs Music Fest – photo © Bryce Lafoon
When you name your new musical festival after Earl Scruggs, suffice it to say it has a certain standard to live up to. That was certainly on the minds of the organizers of the first Earl Scruggs Music Festival held over Labor Day Weekend held on the grounds of North Carolina’s Tryon International Equestrian Center from Friday September 2 to Sunday September 4.
Happily, the event lived up to both the promise and its billing. An array of artists representing some of bluegrass’ brightest played to a modest yet enthusiastic crowd, each sharing the continuum that’s endured for well over 50 years. Scruggs is, of course, widely seen as the man who not only brought the banjo to prominent popularity, but also helped bluegrass become America’s gift to the world, while in the process, offering it up to future generations to entrust and revere.
It was little wonder, then, that each of the artists not only paid tribute to Scruggs as both a master and a mentor, but also delved deep into the music’s origins with purity and purpose. Granted, this was an overarched theme throughout the weekend, given that between performances, interviews with Earl and rarely seen photos documenting his career were shown on the screens on either side of the stage. Yet, the subtlety and finesse of the performers — an all-star line-up that included Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway, Béla Fleck and his My Bluegrass Heart group, the Sam Bush Band, Acoustic Syndicate, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Balsam Range, Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Town Mountain, and Chatham County Line — served as a reminder that Scruggs’ legacy lives on. Indeed, Saturday’s replaying of the Earl Scruggs Revue’s Live at Kansas State album by a combined cast of players offered a direct connection from past to present.
While each of the artists served that scenario well, courtesy of exceptional sets of their own music — and a notable number of covers that fit the format as well — there were those that were so true to the trajectory that the lineage was all but assured. Saturday headliners the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were rightfully hailed as heroes, considering the fact that their Will the Circle Be Unbroken album — which marks its half century anniversary this November — provided impetus for the music’s early prime movers — Scruggs, Merle Travis, Roy Acuff, Vassar Clements, and Roy Huskey Jr. — to share a studio and their classic songs with a new generation of long-haired musicians eager to pick up the torch. In a very real sense then, that album provided a beacon that came to full flourish at the festival.
So too, Jerry Douglas, who reportedly gathered the festival’s line-up through his own auspices, contributed to its overall success. His Earls of Leicester, specifically named in honor of Scruggs and his partner Lester Flatt, culled a homegrown authenticity, even to the point of playing in the sweltering heat clad in matching suits, hats, and bolo ties. Douglas himself was a recurring presence throughout the weekend, appearing as special guest during practically every set, as well as providing the welcome at its kick-off and giving the farewell at its conclusion on Sunday.
For his part, Dom Flemons, an American storyteller in the strictest sense, laid out a traditional tapestry that paid tribute to often-unrecognized black musicians who helped pave the way forward. It was an excellent addition to the festival and one that illuminated the music’s history in a decidedly expansive way.
Beyond the music, every aspect of the lay-out and logistics proved to be to the audience’s advantage. With one mainstay and a smaller side stage it was easy to navigate between sets. The accessibility was ideal, and even those that didn’t spend the money for the VIP stadium seating were able to get up close to the stage. The sets began at their appointed time, ensuring a smooth flow throughout the festivities. Likewise, an ample array of restaurants, food trucks, merch stands, and various vendors gave the crowd all the perks that were needed.
Remarkably, after only a single outing, the Earl Scruggs Music Festival has already risen to the top tier of annual festival festivities. With the promoters promising the next fest for Labor Day, 2023, one can only anticipate all the effort and entertainment still to come.